Several of my Learning Centre students are currently involved in a project-based learning experience about empathy called the Kinship Project. They have volunteered to partner with a class of autistic teens in a school in Pennsylvania. The two groups of students will exchange short personal portraits (slide shows of no more than 60 seconds) to introduce themselves as well as videos to show what their schools are like. Mine will also create a Voicethread portraying 6 strong facial expressions through original photographs and movie trailers for the Pennsylvania students to use as a learning and response tool. Finally the two groups will meet their online partners through Elluminate.
Interestingly, what these 2 groups have in common is that they are both challenged to experience empathy — albeit in different ways. Children “on the Spectrum” are thought to lack empathy because they struggle to make sense of facial expressions, verbal expressions, and body language. For my students empathy is a commodity most often reserved for people they think deserve it. When these students do flick on their empathy switch, they can become so completely involved in the feelings of the other person that their self-worth is measured by the intensity of the bond that develops.
The big questions for my students are: What if you were beamed into an ‘alien’ world where you could not tell what others were feeling and there was no one to share your experiences with? Why is empathy important? How can we use empathy more to guide our interactions with others?
I. What are the key organizational and management challenges of doing a group project in the SS/WR Learning Centre?
a) Group work in an individualized program — In our school students are not really classmates. They work in rooms on completely individualized programs. When my students work on projects, they must also continue to fulfill regular course responsibilities, and I have to divide my time between guiding the ‘project people’ and teaching my regular students.
b) Maintaining the energy — Because project participants are typically scattered in different classrooms, it’s easy for the initial excitement of the project to become diluted.
c) Reality all too often intervenes — Illness, attendance problems, fluctuating levels of personal commitment, and competing priorities (jobs, provincial exams, other outside opportunities) all make the task of keeping the project going more complex. The work can seem to progress in fits and starts. The participants can leave mid-project. Steering the project to a successful conclusion for all can be a challenge.
d) Struggles with the technology — We have very limited bandwidth so often run into trouble when streaming live from the internet.
e) Respecting the work of others — Students think that everything on the net is fair game for ‘grab and remix’ so it’s important to use largely original material and make it easy to cite any other sources.
f) Choice of tools — All software must be permitted by the district and easy for the students to learn so that they can teach each other and so a minimum amount of my time will be required for troubleshooting. We also prefer tools that can be used in other courses at our school or at home on family projects so the tech skills acquired are transferable.
g) Connections to other courses — Project work has generally been done outside the normal courses students take, and it can be a struggle to find ways to give them course credit for this. Not all courses are flexible enough to permit substitution of project work for regular units.
h) Creating more Learning Centre interest in PBL — In the school we can keep the ‘buzz’ going among students, staff, and visitors by connecting the students to the large screen or whiteboard as they work. Unfortunately, not all teachers have equal access to the hardware, so this means asking another busy teacher to unlock and lock up the connecting cables and screen controls once or twice a day.
II. What does all this mean in terms of specific organizational and planning details and choice of tools?
This project has rather sputtered to a stop because the teachers (both in BC and Pennsylvania) are in this Wilkes IM class and we’ve both lost our in-class project focus a little. On the plus side however, this has given me time to get a handle on the critical organization and management steps needed to reinvigorate the project. This will be important so that my students (in BC) finish what they started and so that the students with autism (in Pennsylvania) are not disappointed by their Canadian counterparts.
First I need to light a fire under my students. Several things will accomplish this. My Pennsylvania colleague and I need to set a firm due date so I can hold a planning meeting and create a large planning calendar with my students. I need them to renew their commitment to this project by establishing exactly what course credit each can earn and making clear the work that must be done to qualify for that.Each day a different student needs to be working publicly so that everyone in the school can see what we’re working on this year.
Next I need to make each day’s working time more valuable to the students by reducing the minutes per day that can be spent on the project. Some have spent long hours in needless editing to avoid regular work; others have lost their way and let their project commitments slide and so have accomplished little. My students are used to working from individual tracking sheets. I need to make up a tracking sheet/checklist for the project. A master list with calendar should be posted on the wall. Each student should tick of ‘jobs done’ each day so I can know at a glance what needs to be done next and can help keep the work moving forward.
Finally my students will be more motivated if they have a more personal connection to the Pennsylvania class. We should provide a way for them to make contact with each other through posting personal profiles in the wiki.
Although I have been using Wikispaces and originally thought I’d set up a Ning, given time, I’d now prefer to move the whole project over to Grou.ps as there is unlimited media storage and it provides in one place all the applications we might want to use: of a wiki, a calendar, social network, blogs, and chatrooms.
An IT class in the US has volunteered to do some website customizing for us, so we could ask them to come up with interesting designs and layouts.
Embedding TokBox will enable students to have video chats. The IT students would then be able to communicate directly with both classes about the overall appearance of the site.
I would like to find a tool such as this Forever Journal for the students to record their reflections, but a Google Doc in which I could post responses would be a good alternative.
We have just enough time left this year to bring this project to a successful conclusion. If I make use of the management and organizational strategies above, I know I can ‘get my students stoked’ about the project again and have something interesting to showcase for parents at the Year-End Celebration.
“Myth: Autistic People Lack Empathy.” GRASP: the Global and Regional Asperger Sybndrome Partnership. 17 Apr. 2009 . PDF file written by a person “on the spectrum” — sources of one of the ‘big questions.